Here's my latest obsession: The Powers Girls. This book was written by John Robert Powers - believed to own and run the first modelling agency in the world - in 1941. Promising "The story of models and modeling and the natural steps by which attractive girls are created," this is partly a behind the scenes look at the Powers Agency, partly a beauty and grooming guide, and partly a huge plug for their newly launched modelling school (again a first). It was obviously successful - my edition tells me this title was reprinted seven times between September and November 1941!
Some of the beautiful models who were The Powers Girls, including Sandy Rice, Suzanne Sommers, Jane Davis, Marion Whitney, Jeanne Black, Doris Gibson and Florence Dornin.
At the time of publication, Powers claims to have 400 models on his books, covering almost every aspect of respectable modelling, from high fashion to commercial to illustration. What's the secret to his success? Well, Powers puts it down to his "development of 'The Natural Girl'", in contrast to the buxom Gibson Girl or the glamorous Ziegfeld Follies (in fact, lots of his models were also Ziegfeld Follies, but never mind). But, I guess, the agency became successful at a time when the Parisian fashion industry - and associated photography and modelling - was no longer operating. As American designers were creating new, more informal fashions, it makes sense that would be reflected in its editorial and models too.
Halldis Prince and Charlie Chaplin, 1940. Via
These gorgeous girls were subject to serious attention in their day including invites to the fashionable parties (Hostess "Elsa Maxwell remarked that she could give a party without debutantes but she always made sure of including at least 6 Powers girls," writes Powers) and fashionable clubs (although, "There is an legend around New York that you can tell when the clock strikes midnight because all the Powers girls leave the Stork Club."). The above image is one from a feature in the 22 December 1940 edition of Life simply showing model Halldis Prince attending a New York party thrown by Conde Nast.
The models became considered experts in their own right, and wrote their own books on grooming and presentation - Mary Sue Miller authored one with John Robert Powers called Secrets of Charm, as well as the guide for teens shown above, while Anita Colby was also a former Powers Girl.
Florence Pritchett and aspiring model, photographed for The Powers Girls.
Florence Pritchett is shown in The Powers Girls as one of the advisors in the Powers modelling school - she also wrote her own book The Entertaining People, "A Guide for the Elegant Hostess", published after her death in 1966 and reproducing tips from her many social contacts, including Diana Vreeland, Duchess of Windsor, Cecil Beaton and Princess Irene Galitizine. She was also linked with JFK (you can see a picture of them together at The Stork Club - where else? - here).
At the back of the book, Powers gives a list of his models. It's a fascinating list to trawl through and surprisingly unfamiliar. Many of the models are lost to obscurity or to marriage, or perhaps to both. There's a lot fewer familiar names on that list than if you started talking about, say, 1950s models, or at least they are unfamiliar to a British reader. Yet, in their day, these models were huge. They were used to promote everything, and their names were also used in adverts as well as their faces.
... Carmen Fitzgerald for Model tobacco in 1942 ...
... Francesca Sims for Chesterfield cigarettes, the "Chesterfield Girl of the Month" ...
... while "three of the country's smartest fashion models" including Powers Girl, Florence Dornin, along with Susann Shaw and Dana Dale, were listed as the Chesterfield girls for March 1940.
... 'Beautiful New York model' Joselyn Reynolds along with Catherine Weary, Elizabeth Russell, Peggy Laden, and Dorothy Wallace (not listed as Powers Models in this book) for Listerine ...
... Joselyn Reynolds (again, this time along with Virigina Campbell of Washington D.C.) tells you what she thinks about a De Soto vehicle ...
... Gay Hayden endorses Hegy's Cleaning and Dyeing service ...
... while Frances Donelon got Dundee Towels in 1940.
Start digging around some of the stories around Powers and there's some amazing tales, starting with the women plucked from the streets to become models or - as this article about Dottie Smallwood puts it - who have modelling 'thrust upon them". On the other hand, in the book, Powers claims to have interviewed over a million girls and women who were interested in modelling as a career.
So what made a Powers Girl? As well as the essential stats - given here as 5'6" to 5'10" and size 12 or 14 - a successful model needs to have more. Powers writes, "It is not essential that a girl be beautiful in order to be a successful model, but she must be intelligent". The Powers Girls continually reinforces the intelligence and the charm, as well as the beauty of the models, and as qualities that should be emulated by "real" women.
Betty McLauchlen, as pictured in The Powers Girls. Described as "The Manhattan type", she is described as being "as representative of her sophisticated native city as The New Yorker".
Of course, charm could, to a degree, be taught in his modelling school while beauty, of course, couldn't be. And, although women are encouraged to "use make-up sparingly", grooming is obviously considered paramount: "The Powers girls are said to spend more time and money on their clothes than any other group of girls in the world. The model may economize on her food but heaven help her if she attempts to economize on her hairdresser or her cosmetics." Perhaps this is the birth of that most troublesome of beauty aspirations - the natural look, which always appears to require 20 different kinds of make-up and takes hours to apply!
More on the Powers Girls to follow - I'll next be looking at the models such as Muriel Maxwell, Helen Bennett and Liz Gibbons who made the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. In the meantime, check out my Powers Girls pinterest board featuring some of the many images I found while researching this post.
For now, I'll leave you with a typical bit of John Robert Power's wisdom. "It is excusable for a girl of 16 to be unattractive today, but it is not excusable for a woman of 40 … It is not the most beautiful woman in a room who is the most popular. It is the woman with the greatest degree of charm."